A made-in-China triumph: China declares it can make ball pen head

Premier Li Keqiang had long lamented that China produced more than half the world’s steel but still had to import high grade metal to make decent pens

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 4:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 11:07pm

Despite producing some of the world’s most spectacular infrastructure and sending astronauts into space, China has finally overcome a technological obstacle that has vexed Premier Li Keqiang: the ability to produce a decent ballpoint pen using domestically-made materials and components.

Li has long said that the fact China could not make the high-grade steel and precision machinery required to make the key component of the pens – the metal ball and its casing – reflected badly on Chinese manufacturing in general, state media reported.

Now, after five years of trial and error, Taiyuan Iron and Steel, one of the country’s biggest stainless steelmakers, has worked out the appropriate mix of alloys for high-performance stainless steel and to extrude it into a wire feedstock just 2.3mm thick.

In January last year, Li lamented that China still relied heavily on imported high-grade steel even though it produced more than half of world’s crude iron and steel.

This shortfall in capability showed that China’s manufacturing was weak and in dire need of upgrading, he added.

In a programme that aired last week on Shanxi Satellite Television, Beifa Group, one of China’s largest makers of ballpoint pens based in Ningbo, Zhejiang province said it had started buying stainless steel from Taiyuan Iron and Steel and expected it to completely replace imported steel in the next two years.

The shoddy ballpoint pen had become a symbol of China’s “big but not strong” manufacturing, a situation that Beijing has tried hard to change.

China makes about 38 billion ballpoint pens a year for consumers, and exports many of them.

However, it is forced to import large quantities of stainless steel as well as advanced equipment from Japan and Switzerland in order to manufacture the pen heads, said Xu Jundao, an executive from Beifa.

“The tips of ballpoint pens require very high-grade stainless steel and precision machining,” Xu told the TV station.

In 2011, science and technology minister Wan Gang said China’s ballpoint pen makers made a tiny profit of 10 cents on a pen sold for US$2, and 90 per cent of ballpoint heads and 80 per cent of ink was imported or made on imported machines, Xinhua reported.

Beijing invested about 60 million yuan (HK$67 million) between 2011 and 2014 to develop better materials and equipment for pens.